Artist Awol Erizku on challenging the art world’s whiteness

‘What I try to do with my work is make black aesthetics as universal as European aesthetics or white aesthetics’

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Awol Erizku
TigistPhotography Awol Erizku

Awol Erizku isn’t content with the glaring whiteness of art history. In fact, much of his multi-disciplinary repertoire calls for viewers to re-think representation in visual culture, whether that’s through his fine art revisions (see his 2009 work “Girl with a Bamboo Earring”) or his hip-hop x art theory mashups. Now, the Ethiopian South-Bronx-raised artist is currently showing New Flower: Images of the Reclining Venus at The FLAG Art Foundation in NYC, a stunning photo-series capturing sex workers as reclining nudes in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, referencing Manet’s Olympia and Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque. Applying a lens void of sexualisation, objectification or patronisation, the images invite viewers to think about the black body as a universal body, whilst also provoking discussion on prostitution and the politics of sex work.

At only 27, Erizku’s name is quickly making the rounds on the art circuit – he even showed at the MoMA PopRally earlier this year, to which he says, “I’ve never seen that many people of colour at the MoMA at the same time. If this happened more often then we could change so much about this elitist art world!” Below, Erizku speaks on this very aim, breaking down some steps that can be taken to transform an art world still largely marked by its whiteness.

“The black figure, mainly the black female figure is the most powerful image in the world” –Awol Erizku

FEARLESSLY TACKLE REPRESENTATION

New Flower: Images of the Reclining Venus is based off Manet’s Olympia, and that’s a painting where I had a problem with the hierarchy. You have a prostitute in the foreground and then you have a black maid serving her. That, for me, was very problematic and something I wanted to revise. I wanted to say ‘what if we turn the tables and put these sex workers on a pedestal?’

For me, growing up, I never really saw a black Reclining Venus, so this is me throwing things into art history and saying we need more of this stuff! It was a proposal, if you will. I think there are more and more emerging young black artists who are kind of doing it and more power to that, but we need a whole lot more because we have a lot to catch up on.”

UNIVERSALISE BLACK AESTHETICS

“What I try to do with my work is make black aesthetics as universal as European aesthetics or white aesthetics. The black figure, mainly the black female figure is the most powerful image in the world. It’s especially powerful in a gallery or museum setting because we’re still not used to seeing ourselves represented. It’s not yet a natural gaze – there’s still this sort of voyeuristic aspect about looking at the black body on display. I never feel the need to sexualise the woman in my work; I just present them as they are. That’s powerful enough for me. Working with the women from New Flower was easy because it was a collaboration in a lot of ways, they told me what they were willing to do and not do and I just worked with how they allowed me to photograph them.”

“What I try to do with my work is make black aesthetics as universal as European aesthetics or white aesthetics” – Awol Erizku

USE SOCIAL MEDIA TO REMIX ART HISTORY

“When I make my work, I think about how it will be received in a gallery space and then I question,  ‘how will this also look on Tumblr? How does it look when someone takes a selfie in front of it or when someone reblogs this?’ That’s something that younger artists have to grapple with now. If you’re ignorant to that then you’re not doing yourself a favour.

The first piece I was recognised for was my version of ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, which was called ‘Girl with a Bamboo Earring’. I once had someone come up to me to say ‘Wow, I really like that piece you did and I just noticed that there was another painter from whatever century who did the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’… I saw yours first’ When the MoMA shared it, I think it had around 23,000 likes – that’s the most they ever got on their social media at the time. For sure, you can reach more people on the Internet than say on museum shows, and that’s not to say that one is better than the other – it’s just a fact. This is just the time we live in when someone can see the work I made in 2009 and then tell me that they like that better than the original work from centuries before.”

QUESTION THE BOXES PEOPLE PUT YOU IN

“When I first showed art, at around 22 or 23, my strongest body of work was photography. However, people had a tendency to call my work ‘urban portraits’ and I’m like, ‘what about them is urban?’ The images just happened to be of people of colour.

I think it’s the same way when you meet someone for the first time and they ask, “Where are you from?” I always hate that question because you know it’s a power play. There are a lot of things that people do to put you in a corner, and kind of make you feel less than what you are.

I think when you identify with blackness, the majority of the time your work is categorised as black art. A lot of artists and my peers would disagree with me when I say this but the fact of the matter is that it’s just a label, that’s just a box they put you in. There’s this preconceived notion about it that I don’t like. I am proud to be black, I’m born black – its not something I can change and its not something I want to change – it’s who I am. But for me, as an artist making work in 2015, I don’t really need to put a definition on it. You can call it white, you can call it black but if it doesn’t speak to you, if wasn’t meant for you.”

New Flower: Images of the Reclining Venus is on show at The FLAG Art Foundation until 12 December

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